There are documentaries that uncover hitherto unknown shocking facts, and then there are the ones that take what is already known and then package that information in one place for tidy consumption. “Inequality for All” fits neatly into the latter category, but if you’re looking for a streamlined explanation for the mess the U.S. economy’s in, and how we might get out, it’s as good a place to start as any.
Director Jacob Kornbluth (“Haiku Tunnel”) seems to be pursuing the formula of “An Inconvenient Truth” to explore wealth inequality in this country:
Take someone from the Clinton White House (in this case, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich) and use his writings and lectures (Reich teaches at UC Berkeley) as a springboard for an educational and informative documentary. Add a little animation to some otherwise dry graphs, and you’re in business.
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The graphs really do tell the story here, particularly a series of “suspension bridge” metrics that show the similarities between 1928 and 2007, both years that came before a big economic crash, in terms of the share of all income being earned by the top 1 percent.
Taking a nonpartisan approach to the subject — showing a clip in which a couple of Fox News hosts dismiss Reich as a Communist, he informs us that he is not now nor has he ever been one — the economist makes the case that a stronger middle class is better for everyone, including the wealthiest.
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Animating a factoid like “400 people have more wealth than half the population of the United States” really helps put the point across. And the movie also does an effective job at poking holes through the “job creator” talking point that the right has used as an excuse not to tax the richest Americans: that money isn’t being spent on goods or services or employees, the film argues, but rather on more speculation in the market.
Walking us through how things got so bad and demonstrating a better alternative, Reich presents what he calls the “Virtuous Cycle” — higher wages for workers leads to more spending, more tax being collected, more government investment, more people going to college, more people working, etc. (We’re in the middle of the opposite, which Reich calls a “Vicious Cycle.”)
There’s also the issue of lobbyists and unfettered corporate campaign financing, of course, about which Reich rightfully asks, “How much inequality can we tolerate and still have an economy that’s working for everyone, and still have a democracy that’s functioning?”
“Inequality for All” leaves some dots unconnected. At one point, Reich says our model in fixing things isn’t another country but rather the U.S. in the three decades following World War II. On the other hand, he admits that moving factories back to this country isn’t necessarily a magic bullet when those same factories are just going to be filled with computers and robots.
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We get a few biographical nuggets about Reich himself, mostly regarding the fact that he’s fairly short. The personal insights tend to be interesting (he met Clinton when they were both Rhodes Scholars) and occasionally insightful — Reich’s diminutive stature led him to befriend taller, older boys to protect him from bullies.
One of those protectors, Michael Schwerner, was tortured and killed by the KKK for registering black voters in the South, and his death inspired Reich to protect people from what he calls “the real bullies.”
“Inequality for All” is by no means the last word in this vital and ongoing conversation, but it’s a great place to start the discussion with young people or with that recalcitrant uncle who believes that labor unions and Social Security are why the country’s so broke.